I'm not so sure my colleague Mike Petrilli is right that "we have a parenting problem, not a poverty problem," and I'm even less sure that he is right that educators should "start talking about the problem."
I know this may sound heretical, since anyone who has spent more than a minute in an inner city school or neighborhood (see my Ed Next story on two Chicago charters) knows the intensity of the social dysfunction -- and no school is immune to its effects. But parenting is not a problem that educators are equipped to handle -- they have a hard enough time agreeing on curriculum. I think of a sixth-grade teacher in our small district who, on meet-the teacher-night, passed out no "parent contracts" and no "student contracts" -- both were then the rage -- and gave no lectures about student behavior and the role of the parent. He described what he was going to teach that year, what books the kids would be reading and then said to the assembled parents, "You don't have to worry about a thing; I'll take care of your kids." And he did. He had the same kids from the same bad families that every other teacher had, but he didn't complain about them -- and his classroom was quiet and orderly. And because of that, his students will be better parents.
None of this is to say that parents don't make a difference in a student's life. Or that schools should pretend that it doesn't make a difference. It is to say that schools and parents have different responsibilities -- and we need to appreciate the differences.
My own rule of thumb, as a member of a school board, is a variation on the Kati Haycock "no excuses" motto: "We can talk about parents after we get the buses to run on time." We can tell parents what to do after the school's drinking fountains are fixed and the potholes in the school driveway are plugged. We can teach parenting classes after we get our teachers to show up on time and our aides to stop yelling at children. We should instruct parents about being better parents after we start returning their phone calls -- and after school board members stop bullying one another. We can tell parents what to read to their kids after we get a written, taught, and tested curriculum.
In other words, once schools are doing what they should be doing, then they can start telling parents what they should do. This sounds harsh and it doesn't mean that schools shouldn't encourage parent participation, but when you've seen school dysfunction up close and personal, you know you can't afford to allow the "bad parent" problem into your school! It will be used as a crutch or an excuse -- or worse.
Sure, parents have problems; one of them is bad schools.
The irony here, with all due respect to the fine work of our sociologists who tell us how doomed kids from bad backgrounds and uneducated parents are, is that we have somehow turned public schools inside out. What used to be considered "the engine of social mobility" (see Fareed Zakaria in the new Time magazine), the incubator of productive and successful citizens (and parents), the school is now treated as some kind of barometer of caste and class. Instead of a place to liberate one from ones background, to become better (at parenting and citizenship), school has become a mirror for reflecting that background back on students. We slice and dice kids to know their every "learning style" proclivity, dooming them to a suffocating stasis. As Joseph Campbell has said, "the first purpose of mythology is to pitch you outside of yourself." The history is obviously more nuanced than this, but as I read it, we created public schools in large part to get kids away from bad homes and bad parents and onerous social and economic circumstance and stigma. It seemed to work pretty well until about 50 years ago. Now, we seem unable to teach kids unless their parents are educated saints and poverty is solved.
Mike isn't arguing for any particular approach to the parent problem, but it is a slippery slope, especially for school reformers, to turn the discussion to one of parenting (or poverty) precisely because, as Kati Haycock would suggest, it lets schools off the hook. In fact, the focus on parents and parenting lets entire communities off the hook. In a district like mine, with high poverty and minority representation in the schools and terrible academic outcomes, it is an unfortunate given among those middle class people who have succeeded in school (or think they have) that the only reason that the district has such lousy test scores and graduation rates is "the parents." Part of the point I was trying to make the other day, with my "More money to the parents" post, was that plenty of these parents, including poor parents, are a lot smarter than we - the system - gives them credit for and that if they had more choice (or the money to exercise those preferences) and fewer structural and institutional impediments to overcome, you'd see big changes in some of our slackard schools. Even bad parents are not so dumb. (See Parent Revolution and Bruno Manno's new Ed Next story, Not Your Mother's PTA)
At another level, my worry is that the parent improvement movement is destined to become another responsibility for a system already freighted with the weight of the world - and the World Wide Web! If you add up the time already spent on behavioral modification curricula and their spin-offs -- anti-bullying, anti-drugs, anti-gangs, anti-teen-pregnancy, character, self-esteem, individualized education plans -- is it any wonder that our kids are getting the socks beat off them in international academic competitions? Academics? What's that? Who's got time for the parts of speech or the periodic table when you're busy writing or reading poetry about your terrible life in the projects?
The good news is that part of the answer to the parenting problem is in Mike's essay, when he suggests that much of what "healthy parenting" is about is "commitment, discipline, and practice." These are fairly fundamental character traits - and they can be taught. It is the "grit" factor about which Paul Tough wrote a couple of months ago in the New York Times Magazine, "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?" You need not go as far as a formal curriculum on character (in fact, I'm not a big fan), but there are plenty of ways of teaching grit in regular classes. In other words, character traits like commitment, discipline, and practice can be taught (and practiced) while teaching history, math, geography, art, acting, science, and, yes, "reading" (in quotes because the subject has been so devalued in the last couple of decades).
Thus, the solution to bad parenting is fairly straightforward: teach kids to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent while they are learning the times tables, memorizing the Declaration of Independence, handing in homework, and paying attention in science class. Oh, yes, and reading about the great philosophers, soldiers, writers, stoics, saints, despots, monks and martyrs who knew something of these traits -- more, perhaps than your local mayor or teacher or even your inner self. And, also, by sitting up straight when reading these folks, one might learn something of the discipline necessary to be a good parent.